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A Second Great White Fleet

Christopher Albon and Craig Hooper write in favor of an application of naval soft power:

On August 31st, little noticed outside naval analyst circles, China’s first purpose-built hospital ship left port on her inaugural mission. The 10,000 ton vessel, called Peace Ark, and her crew of over 400 military and medical personnel will spend the next 87 days providing health care to foreign militaries in the Gulf of Aden and humanitarian assistance to civilians in Djibouti, Kenya, Tanzania, the Seychelles, and Bangladesh. More than that, Peace Ark’s deployment marks the start of a new phase of Chinese soft power: medical assistance to win hearts and minds.

U.S. Navy ships, including hospital ships, routinely conduct similar humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations. The U.S.N.S. Mercy is currently returning from such a mission in the Pacific. However, in almost all cases these deployments are completed by one or two vessels, whose work often achieves only minor local media coverage. If we are serious about improving global perceptions of the U.S., we must think bigger.

One hundred and two years ago, sixteen United States Navy battleships steamed out of Hampton Roads, Virginia. For the next two years, this fleet circumnavigated the globe, making port calls on six continents. The armada, sporting freshly painted white hulls, became known as the “Great White Fleet,” and by doing everything but fight introduced a new and invigorated America to the world.

We need a second Great White Fleet.

One of the interesting questions under the current administration is whether there is a willingness to deploy soft power for use in situations that clash, even indirectly, with the interests of China. Much as I have agreed with the steps of Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense, his attitude toward the use of the Navy toward these kind of ends is perhaps a bit too negative. In any case, an interesting proposition.

Benjamin Domenech, a former speechwriter for Tommy Thompson and Sen. John Cornyn, is editor of The New Ledger and a research fellow with The Heartland Institute. He writes on defense and security issues for The Compass.